A Foodie Weekend in New York City

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Happy Tuesday everyone! I just returned from an amazing, food-filled trip to New York City. I’ve been to the big city numerous times for numerous reasons in numerous seasons – Christmas trips, visits with relatives, job interviews, school trips, mission work, random fall weekends – but this was primarily a FOODIE WEEKEND! I had a US Airways companion pass that I needed to use by June 30, so my friend and I decided to head up to NYC to have a food- and drink-filled girls weekend. I have a lot of friends from college living in the city so it was also a great reunion with good friends I hadn’t seen in a couple of years.

We stayed in a friend’s beautiful apartment in the Upper East Side and enjoyed being able to walk to Central Park and great restaurants in the area. Since the friend who came with me and I had both been to the city before, we didn’t need to fill our time with tourist activities. I put together the perfect foodie itinerary for us so we got a taste of quite a few different neighborhoods around Manhattan. I’ve broken down where we ate by neighborhood, and would highly recommend all of these places!

Lower East Side

Russ & Daughters Cafe
This cafe is an off-shoot of the original Russ & Daughters shop specializing in smoked fish, caviar, and bagels and bialys. We couldn’t go to NYC without getting a bagel, so Russ & Daughters Cafe was our first stop for lunch when we got in on Friday. I got the Classic Board with a bialy and smoked salmon, cream cheese, tomatoes, onions, and capers. The salmon had the perfect smoked taste, the tomatoes were so fresh, and the bialy was amazing. If you don’t know, a bialy is similar to a bagel, but only has the hole in the top and is just baked instead of boiled and then baked. My friend got the Shtetl Board with smoked sable (black cod), goat cream cheese, tomato, onion, and capers. We also got housemade Blueberry Basil sodas to wash it all down with.

Stanton Social
Stanton social is a gourmet small plates restaurant that my New York friend said we absolutely had to go to. We took his advice and made dinner reservations for Saturday night. The three-story restaurant was packed and had a really cool and trendy atmosphere. Since it’s small plates, you order a bunch of dishes to share, and they come out as they’re ready, instead of all at once. There were four of us (one vegetarian, sorry Eva) and they told us 8-10 dishes were typical for 4 people but we decided to start with 6 and see how we felt after that. My favorites were the phenomenal Potato & Goat Cheese Pierogies with caramelized onions and truffle creme fraiche; the French Onion Soup Dumplings covered by a layer of baked melted cheese; and the Mexican Street Corn Ravioli with roasted poblano crema, jalapeño, cotija, and cilantro.

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French Onion Soup Dumplings

Everything we had though was delicious. The other dishes we got were Red Snapper Tacos, Chicken Arepas, and Chicken and Waffles that had Louisiana hot sauce butter that I want to put on all things, always. We felt totally satisfied after the 6 dishes, but I think it depends on what dishes you order (also our vegetarian friend obviously wasn’t eating all of them). It seemed like the dishes on the left side of the menu were a lot smaller than the ones on the right side, so I think it’s a matter of whether you order 6 little dishes or 6 larger dishes.

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Arepas and Mexican Street Corn Ravioli

The cocktails were also amazing. We tried the Strawberry Fields with Grey Goose Citron, muddled fresh strawberries, lemon syrup, fresh lemon, and a Riesling floater; and the Notorious F.I.G with Bulleit Bourbon, fresh fig, pear-cinnamon syrup, and fresh lemon.

Strawberry Fields Cocktail with pierogies to the right

Strawberry Fields Cocktail with pierogies to the right

Beauty and Essex
This was the coolest speakeasy lounge/bar right around the corner from Stanton Social. It doesn’t look like much from the outside and you walk through a pawn shop to get to it, but inside, it’s a huge three story lounge and restaurant that looks like a mansion. There are crystal chandeliers in every room, leather couches, and a grand staircase leading upstairs. It was packed. They have a list of handcrafted cocktails, and I opted for The Geoffrey with Milagro reposado tequila, cinnamon St. Germain, lemon, and Magners Cider. It tasted like an updated margarita, so of course I loved it.

Upper East Side

Felice 64
My friend whose apartment we were staying at recommended this Italian restaurant and wine bar for our dinner Friday night. We went to see An Act of God with Jim Parsons (Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory!) and were looking for some place to do a late dinner after since we’d had a late lunch. Felice 64 was just a block away from where we were staying, so it was perfect. I ordered the Risotto alle Capesante which was carnaroli rice risotto tossed in broccoli purée and served with seared scallops, buffalo ricotta cheese and lemon zest. It reminded me of my favorite pasta my grandma makes. It was delicious and I loved that they sliced the scallops up and mixed them in with the risotto. My friend ordered the Fusilli al Ferretto with homemade tomato sauce and burrata cheese. Also great – the pasta was homemade and the tomato sauce tasted very authentic. Plus burrata cheese is my favorite! (Sorry for the bad picture — the light was basically non-existent inside.)

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Cascabel Taqueria
We went here for brunch on Sunday because we couldn’t leave New York without doing bottomless brunch. And what goes better with bottomless brunch than Mexican food?! This taqueria offers refined Mexican street food and bottomless drinks for only $15 (a really good deal considering most drinks in NYC cost $15 for one). The best thing about the bottomless deal is that you can try as many of the eight drink options as you want — you’re not confined to just one drink. We tried the Sangria, La Lola (grapefruit juice, cava, and aperol), and the El Capitan (cava, passionfruit, and domain de canton). They were all so good! For food, I ordered the Chilaquiles with chicken and fried eggs and my friends got the Carnitas Benedict on cornbread with chipotle hollandaise. Everything was delicious!

Little Italy

Ferrara
Ferrara is a famous Italian bakery that you have probably heard of before. They have the best cannolis you’ll ever have. I always get the chocolate dipped ones. I also love their lobster tail pastries. They are huge and stuffed with so much cream they feel like they weigh two pounds each! You can get mini ones, too, but who wants that?! Go here for dessert and coffee one night or grab a sweet afternoon snack.

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Nolita

Cafe Habana
This little Cuban cafe has become known for their Mexican-style Grilled Corn and the affordable price they offer great food at (corn is only $3). There is a sit-down part of the restaurant and also a to-go counter around the corner where you can grab and go. We stopped in for an afternoon snack of the corn. It really is served true Mexican-style, grilled and coated with Cotija cheese and a sprinkle of hot chile powder on top. Be careful — the chile powder is very spicy, but you can always order it without. I wanted to eat this corn every day! We also got a side of plantains because I can never resist plantains.

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Chelsea // Chelsea Market

On Saturday, we went to Chelsea Market, a specialty food and product market, for lunch. We sampled dishes from a few different places. Here were my favorites:

Los Tacos No. 1
This place probably had the longest line but trust me, it’s worth it to wait in it. These are true Mexican and West Coast-style tacos, and the Carne Asada taco I had was one of the best I’ve ever had. The steak was so tender and flavorful, and was topped with guacamole, salsa, and onions and wrapped up in a corn (or flour if you prefer) tortilla. My friends also loved the Pollo Asado and Nopal (a type of edible cactus) tacos.

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Mŏkbar
We have a lot of ethnic food options in Birmingham, but traditional ramen is not one of them, so I knew I wanted to have some while I was in NYC. Luckily, we came across Mŏkbar in the market, serving Korean-style ramen. I got the Classic with pork broth, braised pork, and seasonal vegetables which included greens and mushrooms and added a poached egg to it. The pork was incredibly tender and flavorful, as was the broth. So much better than ramen from Cup Noodles!

Mokbar Ramen and Carne Asada taco from Los Tacos

Mokbar Ramen and Carne Asada taco from Los Tacos

Doughnuttery
This place makes the cutest mini donuts and you can watch them being fried right in front of you. You have the option to coat them in a variety of flavored sugars. We got a dozen and tried them in flavors of Urban Monkey, Mulled Green Apple Cider, Cheeky Peach, and Fruity Cereal. They were all really good and we loved their little bite-sizeness. The best part though was the Beer Caramel that we got to dip them in. It really tasted like beer mixed with caramel and it was amazing, especially with the Mulled Green Apple Cider donut.

Pro Tip: After you fill up at Chelsea Market, walk it off on the High Line right near by — the elevated park on an old railroad track. It’s beautiful and has great views of the Empire State Building.

Financial District

Loopy Doopy
If you venture down to the Financial District (I know you want to see the new Freedom Tower), this rooftop bar at the Conrad Hotel serves alcohol-infused People’s Pops in glasses of Prosecco. Yes, you read that right. I will now be dipping all my popsicles in Prosecco. You choose your flavor of pop and then they drop it in the glass and you can enjoy it and beautiful views of the Hudson and Lady Liberty. I opted for the Pear Vanilla pop and my friends got Peach Ginger and Blackberry Mint. It’s also fun because the pop you choose flavors your Prosecco. But this isn’t a place to stay and drink all day — these cocktails will set you back $20 (before tip). Definitely a one and done place!

Let me know some of your favorite foodie spots in the Big Apple!

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In and Around Banner Elk, North Carolina

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Ok, I know I missed Travel Tuesday, but I feel like I’ve been slacking on my travel content lately and didn’t want to wait until next week to put this one up. (Side note: y’all let me know if you like the idea of Travel Tuesday or if you’d rather just see travel content as I have it.)

Anyway, I grew up in western North Carolina, about an hour from the mountains, and going up to the mountains was always an integral part of my childhood. We would take day trips or weekend trips to go up and hike, eat, and just enjoy the cooler weather and beautiful views. About two years ago, my parents decided to invest in a little cabin in Banner Elk, North Carolina. I love going up to visit, and although I don’t get up as much as I’d like to be able to, it’s always a nice treat to go home and be with my family in our little mountain abode.

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I headed up to the cabin for Memorial Day just the other week, and we had the most beautiful weekend we could have ever asked for. The sun was shining without a cloud in the sky, the temperature was between 65 and 75 degrees every day, and the rhododendrons were in full bloom. We hiked, we drank wine on the deck with neighbors, and we had a Memorial Day cookout to wrap up the weekend. It was wonderful.

If you’ve never been to the mountains of western North Carolina, it needs to be on your bucket list. My favorite areas are Banner Elk (where our cabin is) and the surrounding areas of Boone, Blowing Rock, and Valle Crucis. They mountain views are breathtaking, the hiking trails have something for every age, and there are great restaurants and watering holes. I wanted to share with you a few of my favorite places and hidden secrets for eating, drinking, and exploring!

Eat:

Coyote Kitchen – Boone
This is the place I crave most when I’m gone. It’s in a strip mall in Boone, but don’t let that sway your opinion of it. Their style is “Southwest Caribbean Soulfood” and it is so darn good. They have these “boats,” which are personal casserole dishes layered up with protein and veggies and topped and broiled with Jack cheese. There are 10 options and my favorite is the Taos boat: rosemary chicken, cornbread, black beans, roasted sweet potatoes, roasted corn, fried plantains, Roma tomatoes, Jack cheese, chipotle cream cheese, and scallions. The combination is incredible and it’s delicious, filling, warm-you-to-your-toes comfort food.

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The Ham Shoppe – Valle Crucis
This is an unassuming wooden home on the side of the road that you probably wouldn’t think twice about if you drove by. But inside, they have some of the most delicious sandwiches that are perfect for taking on a hike or for a picnic in the park. They are huge sandwiches packed full of protein between slices of delicious fresh bread. You can create your own sandwich or order from their specialty sandwiches. My personal favorite is The Rhett with homemade pimento cheese, spinach, cucumbers, onions, sprouts, and bacon on toasted sun-dried tomato bread (although sometimes I get it on sourdough). My dad loves the Russian Mistress (never thought I’d write that sentence) with turkey breast, fresh spinach, tomato, bacon, and Swiss cheese topped with Thousand Island dressing on multigrain bread. (PS Google will tell you this place is permanently closed when you google it, but that’s not true.)

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Vidalia Restaurant and Wine Bar – Boone
This is my favorite fine dining restaurant, located in downtown Boone. They specialize in refined Southern cuisine, which means all your favorite Southern dishes re-imagined and made a little fancier. People go crazy for the Chicken and Waffles with creole battered fried chicken, sawmill gravy, collard greens, waffles, and whiskey infused cane syrup, but I absolutely love the Braised Beef Short Ribs with Cheerwine BBQ sauce, griddled mac n’ cheese, grilled Vidalia onion chowchow, jicama, and baby greens. For a true taste of the mountains, try the oat-crusted North Carolina Trout with pecan brown butter sauce. I love how they take North Carolina staples – like Cheerwine, sawmill gravy, and trout – and incorporate them into their menu. Last time I was there we also had this fabulous lemon poundcake with lemon basil ice cream. Don’t skip dessert!

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Drink:

Blowing Rock Brewing Company – Blowing Rock
Blowing Rock Brewing is a brewpub in the adorably charming downtown of Blowing Rock. They brew their own beers in the style of “mountain artisan beers” meaning they use the fresh mountain spring water and incorporate flavors of the area. All the beers are crisp and complex. I like the High Country Ale (their flagship) and the Farmhouse Peach Ale (available seasonally). There is also really good food at the Ale House, the restaurant in the brewery. The Grilled Carolina Bison Burger with charred tomato jam, smoked mozzarella, peppered bacon, stout glaze, and grilled onions is probably the best burger you’ll find in the area. The brewery’s beers are incorporated in almost every dish on the menu. They also have fun seasonal specials like this lobster roll below with pickled okra.

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Grandfather Vineyard – Banner Elk
This is a beautiful little vineyard just down the road from our cabin, so we take full advantage of it. You can come and do tastings or just grab a bottle and enjoy a glass (or three) out on the patio or down by the bubbling stream. The vineyards are grown on the side of the mountain, which makes for some beautiful scenery. They have a variety of reds, whites, rosés, and specialty wines like ice wines and muscadine wines (a North Carolina specialty).

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Do:

Mast General Store – Valle Crucis
Take a trip to the original Mast General Store in Valle Crucis one day. It’s an old-fashioned candy store and general store. We always grab our favorite candies and a Cheerwine or Peach Nehi and sit outside on the porch swings or the picnic tables out back and enjoy the beautiful weather. There’s also a little park with a nice walking trail right near the store.

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Hike: 

There is so much good hiking in the area, and while I love to hike and would gladly do some of the more challenging trails, my family likes the easy but scenic ones. Here are three of our favorites.

Rough Ridge – Boone
Rough Ridge definitely has the nicest views of these three hikes. It’s a fairly easy hike – it can get a little rocky – but the views are extremely rewarding for little effort. And you’ll see why these mountains are called the Blue Ridge Mountains. It’s only about .3 of a mile.

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Crab Orchard Falls – Valle Crucis
These waterfalls are easily accessed from the parking lot at Holy Cross Episcopal Church in Valle Crucis (don’t worry, it’s allowed – there are signs for it). It’s a short hike to the falls – a bit steep in places, but nothing dangerous. The falls are really nice and there are massive rocks and boulders that you can climb on for different vantage points. Watch out though, the rocks can be slippery if they’re covered in moss.

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Grandfather Profile Trail – Banner Elk
If you’ve seen Grandfather Mountain (see photo at top of post), you know it looks like the profile of an old man’s face from afar. Well this hike is along that profile. The entire trail is one of the most challenging, with steep hills, large rocks, and even ladders to climb, but the first mile of it is a really nice and easy hike with beautiful scenery. You walk through the woods and cross the Watauga river and other streams. It’s really quite scenic and you can say you hiked the profile trail even if you don’t do all of it. 🙂 We were told a good stopping point is when you get to the point where you have to go between two large rocks. But if you want to go a little farther, it’s 1.7 miles from the parking lot to Foscoe View. After that, things start to go uphill and get challenging quickly.

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I hope you enjoyed these tips and consider planning a trip to the beautiful state I was lucky to grow up in!

Why Eating Local is Important

I promise, within a week, I will have an original post up here! I have been slacking but I have also been in a whirlwind of grandma visiting, my mom visiting, and a trip home to North Carolina. But things are leveling out here and I can get back into my regular routine now, hopefully!

In the meantime, check out this post I wrote on Family Travels on a Budget about why I think it’s so important to eat local on your vacations.

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Sun-Dried Tomato Guacamole

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Hola amigos! Sorry I’ve been MIA for the past 10 days — I was on vacation in Aruba! More on that coming soon. So anyway tomorrow is Cinco de Mayo, and even though it’s not a traditional Mexican holiday, I love any excuse to gorge myself on tortilla chips and drink too many margaritas (sorry in advance). But going out to eat on Cinco can be a pain in the you-know-what with long waits, rushed service, and not enough margs, so this year, consider getting some friends together and having your own little Cinco de Mayo party. Everyone can bring a dish, and you can bring this awesome guacamole.

I love a good guac, and a newish place that we have here in Birmingham called Babalu has some of the best in town. They make it right at your table, but what makes it unique is that they use sun-dried tomatoes in it instead of regular fresh tomatoes. I was a little skeptical at first, but the tanginess of the tomatoes actually compliments the avocado really well. I’m hooked on it, so I decided to make my own version of it.

The best thing about making guacamole is that it’s so easy. The hardest part, honestly, is finding avocados at their peak of ripeness. You can tell an avocado is ripe when it is soft and slightly gives to your touch (if it gives way too much, it’s overripe). Luckily, Publix pulled through for me today! I like my guacamole chunky, so I actually make crisscross cuts in the avocado halves before scooping out the pulp and then slightly mashing it together with the other ingredients. And if you’re a little unsure of the best way to halve, pit, and peel an avocado, here’s a helpful video. If you’re using oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes, make sure you pat them dry on paper towels first.

Once you’ve got all your ingredients chopped up, you just have to throw it all together, grab some chips, and serve. I guarantee it will be gone in no time! (FYI I made a smaller batch to serve about 4 people, but this recipe can easily be doubled/tripled to feed a crowd!)

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Sun-Dried Tomato Guacamole

2 avocados, halved, pitted, and pulp scooped out
1/4 large sweet onion, chopped
4-5 sun-dried tomato halves, chopped
1/4 tsp. salt
Lime juice to taste

1. In a medium bowl, mash avocado to desired chunkiness. Add onions, tomatoes, and salt, and stir together. Season with lime juice to your preference.

2. Serve with tortilla chips. Enjoy!

Change it up:

  • If you like it hot, add some chopped jalapeños to the guacamole.
  • Swap red onions for the sweet onions.
  • Add some chopped, fresh cilantro.

Travel Tuesday: Best Restaurants in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach

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Orange Beach, Alabama

Breaking news: Alabama has a coast with beaches. You would be surprised at how many people don’t know this and have actually said to me, “Wait, Alabama has a coast?” I knew Alabama had beaches, but never thought much about them growing up (I grew up in NC), but once I moved down here I realized we actually have some pretty beautiful beaches.

The 50 miles of Alabama shoreline butt up to Florida’s Emerald Coast, which as you know, has some of the most beautiful beaches (Destin, anyone?). But since we’re right next to it, we get those same beauty benefits. With white sand and blue-green water, Gulf Shores and Orange Beach are definitely worth a visit. And with spring break coming up, it’s the perfect excuse to book a trip to the Gulf Coast.

I went to Orange Beach again just recently and decided it was about time I made a list of the best beach eats down there. Orange Beach and Gulf Shores are right next to each other, so I’m including places at both.

Best Fried Seafood
Mikee’s in Gulf Shores has the best fried shrimp in the area. They are served to you steaming hot from the fryer (I know this because of the temperature, duh, but also because our waiter told us it would take a little longer since they fry them fresh). I appreciate this. I would much rather wait a few more minutes (and honestly it doesn’t take long at all) then eat soggy shrimp that has been sitting out for a while. The breading at Mikee’s is also perfect. It full coats the shrimp but isn’t overwhelmingly heavy. I hate when the breading is crumbly and falling off the shrimp or too heavy. Mikee’s is not like that. AND you can do all-you-can-eat fried shrimp, catfish, or whitefish and it’s only like $3 more than the regular platter.

Pro Tip: Ask for a side of the tartar sauce. It’s by request only since it’s homemade.

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Best Sushi and Best Happy Hour
Cosmo’s in Orange Beach is a fabulous restaurant for sushi and/or a nice dinner of steak or seafood. We went for sushi and ordered some appetizers as well. For appetizers, the Firecracker Shrimp is a must. The shrimp are fried and tossed in a spicy remoulade sauce. We also had the crab cakes with a roasted yellow pepper aoili and remoulade. Also delicious. For sushi, we got a Philly Roll, Shrimp Roll, and Volcano Roll. The Shrimp and Philly Rolls were extremely fresh tasting and also the perfect bite size (I hate huge sushi pieces). But the Volcano Roll is what steals the show. Topped with a spicy krab salad, the roll comes out looking unlike anything you’ve ever seen. But once you pull a piece off, you have a warm, flavorful roll filled with tuna, red pepper, and asparagus. The krab salad is what makes it though. It was so, so good. I literally crave it every day now.

Pro Tip: Go for happy hour. Certain appetizers and sushi rolls are $5, and it’s $1 off all other sushi rolls.

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Best Bushwacker and Royal Red Shrimp
One of the most popular places down on the Gulf coast is the Florabama, the bar that sits on the Florida-Alabama line. It’s a dive bar, but they have the best Bushwackers on the coast and some damn good Royal Red Shrimp. You’re probably wondering what both of these things are if you’re not from the area. A Bushwacker is basically an alcoholic milkshake commonly made with Kahlua, Creme de Cacao, rum, and cream of coconut. They are awesome, and Florabama makes them the way they should be – thick, cold, and strong.

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Royal Red Shrimp are a type of shrimp only found 100 miles off the coast of Orange Beach. They were originally considered bycatch, but then someone tasted them and realized they were delicious. Their skin has a bright red color and they have a texture and sweet taste similar to that of lobster. Florabama offers them steamed and tossed in Cajun seasoning with melted butter to dip them in. They are phenomenal, and are cheaper, better, and easier to eat than one of the more famous place to get Royal Reds — King Neptune’s (who serves them with the heads on for $8 more meaning you get less shrimp since it’s done by weight).

Pro Tip: Go during the day, especially if you’re with the family. Things can get a little rowdy at night, and they charge a cash-only cover on certain nights.

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Best Dessert
If you listen to one thing I tell you, make it to go get the Chocolate Chip Peanut Butter Pie from Original Oyster House in Gulf Shores. It. Is. Out. Of. This. World. We ate it more times than we should have in one weekend. It isn’t dense like some peanut butter pies; it has a light and airy texture with the perfect combination of sweet peanut buttery filling and an Oreo crust. Get it topped with whipped cream and thank me later.

Pro Tip: One slice is big enough for two people to share. Trust me, it’s huge.

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Best Breakfast
If you love a good donut in the morning, you have to check out City Donut in Orange Beach. They have a huge selection of donut flavors and you can tell they are all made fresh. We ordered a half a dozen and tried a variety of cream filled, cake, and old-fashioned donuts. The Bavarian Cream and Red Velvet were my favorite. (Disclaimer: there are obviously places to get heartier breakfasts in the area, but I just love donuts.)

Pro Tip: Go early. They often sell out of the most popular donut flavors since they make them fresh each morning.

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Now take these recommendations and get a drink in your hand and your toes in the sand!